'Mr Blair, please, you can help. I think this is my last chance'

After a day of frantic diplomacy, British hostage Ken Bigley pleads for his life
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Ken Bigley, the British hostage being held in Iraq, made a dramatic and emotional appeal last night, asking Tony Blair to intervene and save his life. The appeal was broadcast on an Arabic website.

Ken Bigley, the British hostage being held in Iraq, made a dramatic and emotional appeal last night, asking Tony Blair to intervene and save his life. The appeal was broadcast on an Arabic website.

Mr Bigley, 62, looked drained and distraught as he made a plea for concessions from the British and American governments for the release of two women prisoners ­ a condition that has been demanded by the hostage-takers,

Wearing an orange boiler suit ­ the same garb forced on Muslim prisoners at America's Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba ­ he sobbed repeatedly as he said: "I think this is possibly my last chance ... I don't want to die, I don't deserve it and neither do those women held in the Iraqi prisons ... I need you to help, Mr Blair. You are now the only person on God's earth that I can speak to."

His life was hanging in the balance after a day of diplomatic wrangling in which Iraqi officials claimed that at least one female prisoner held in US custody would be released, a claim later dismissed by Washington.

It was one of three videos to be released by his kidnappers. The other two showed the executions of his two American colleagues.

During the grainy 11-minute video, Mr Bigley, a civil engineer, repeatedly broke down as he made an impassioned plea for Mr Blair to help save his life by co-operating with the demands of his captors. "I need you to be as compassionate as you have always said you are and help me, help me to live so I can see my wife and my son and my mother and my brothers again. I don't want to die ... Please, please help me to see my wife, who cannot go on without me. She really can't."

He continued: "Mr Blair, I am nothing to you, it's just one person in the whole of the United Kingdom, that's all, with a family like you've got a family, with children, like your children, your boys, your wife. Please, you can help, I know you can." He added: "I also now realise how much the Iraqi people have suffered ... People of Britain ... you are people who can open your mouths and speak and say enough is enough. Enough is enough of playing with Iraq like a toy."

Mr Bigley's brother Paul, after hearing of the appeal, said: "It's good news is it not? The man is alive." He added that the al-Jazeera television station had won a "stay of execution" for his brother.

However, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, reiterated to the family last night that the Government could not engage in bargaining with terrorists because it would put many more lives at risk. "This is adding torture to the appalling situation in which these evil terrorists have placed Mr Bigley," he said. "Of course our hearts go out yet more to him and his family but I am afraid it can't alter the position of the Government."

The hostage crisis in Iraq appeared to deepen last night as a separate Islamist group claimed to have killed two Italian aid workers taken hostage earlier this month. Simona Pari and Simona Terretta were reportedly killed after demands for the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq were not met.

Earlier in the day, 20 Iraqi and Egyptian hostages were also seized by armed gunmen in Fallujah. The kidnap victims were engineers and bodyguards working for two Egyptian companies repairing a communications tower.

For the family of Mr Bigley, the release of the video was the latest chapter in a rollercoaster of raised hopes and disappointment. A glimmer of hope was raised when Iraqi officials said a decision had been made to free Dr Rihab Taha, who was a senior weapons scientist under Saddam Hussein. But the American embassy in Baghdad, insisting that no deals must ever be done with hostage-takers, said there would be no immediate release of the women.

It was a row that went to the heart of the issue of sovereignty, with the Iraqi interim government apparently overruled by the US authorities, who were meant to have handed over power three months ago.

The developments began early yesterday, hours after Abu Musabal-Zarqawi's Tawhid and Jihad group announced that it had beheaded Jack Hensley. They warned that the Briton would be killed unless their demands for the release of female prisoners in two American-run jails were met, though they set no deadline.

By mid-morning, there were signals that moves were under way which would go some way to meeting the demands of the hostage-takers. Kassim Daoud, the country's national security adviser, said three prisoners in US custody, including Dr Taha, known as "Dr Germ", would be released because of a lack of evidence, but not for a few days. He said: "The judges decided on conditional release. It will not happen today, tomorrow or the day after the tomorrow."

Later, statements from the Iraqi justice ministry suggested that a second weapons scientist, Dr Huda Salih Ammash, could also be released.

But, as soon as the slim cause for optimism was raised, frantic back-pedalling by the interim Iraqi government and a robust response from Washington, backed by London, appeared to dash hopes of the family. Downing Street, criticised by the Bigley family for not doing enough to secure the release of the hostage, denied there had been any request from the British Government for the release of the women. A No 10 spokesman said: "That would be tantamount to dealing with terrorists."

It emerged yesterday that the efforts to save Mr Bigley included contact between British and American officials and a group of senior Sunni Muslim clerics with links to militant groups.

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